She sees him first from afar, in the marketplace in Ihistan. He is with two of his fellows, one of whom is trying to make himself understood by raising his voice and waving his arms, as if the fruit-seller before him was elderly and her mind wandering.
He does not raise his voice or wave his arms. He stands by his fellows, but somehow the set of his crossed arms conveys amusement without malice. When she wanders closer, she tells herself that she merely wants to see how he will react when his friend loses his tenuous grasp on patience; she tells herself that his strange yellow hair and his strong chin have nothing to do with her interest.
She is very near indeed, pausing in the shadow of a flower-seller’s stand, when he looks up and meets her eyes. In the crowd, she should have been invisible – or perhaps she had simply been telling herself that, to silence the quiet voice inside her that warned against the strange pull she felt from this stranger. This Outlander. These Outlanders are new-come to Damar, and they speak with sweet voices (for all that they are inclined to be over-loud), but their eyes are covetous and never still.
His eyes are blue. The bluest of blues, as blue as the stone in Gonturan’s hilt.
His eyes smile at her, but his face is still. A serious face. A young and beautiful face, but one that wears its youth and beauty lightly; a face whose quiet curiousity will grow into wisdom in its old age.
Her uncle worries about the Outlanders. She has seen the way he carries his head, after an evening with the Meeldtar – as upright and stern as ever, but with that careful tightness that she, sister’s daughter, finds impossible to mistake. He has raised her after her mother fell fighting one of the Northern tribes; he has led her into battle and worked with her to help their people in war’s aftermath; she knows when he is hiding worry from her. She does not understand why Damar must fear these Outlanders, this scattering of rakish youngsters who ride for glory and adventure, but she knows that her uncle would have her resist the strange attraction of this one, for all his blue eyes and serious face.
But she is young, and he is beautiful – and he does not leer at her, with that appraising eyebrow and appreciative smirk which even now one of his fellows is sending in her direction, having noticed the preoccupation of his friend. He simply looks at her, and there is warmth in his eyes.
She lets the smile pulling at her mouth sharpen into something alive, small but bright. He may be Outlander, and she Damar, but that smile would be a challenge in any language. For a moment, the market in Ihistan seems to slow around them, as she waits to see if he will take up the challenge, or if he will turn away.
And then he steps forward, steps away from his fellows, faces upturning in confused unknowing, steps toward her.
His hand glitters, as he reaches it out. “Thank you,” he says to the flower-seller, and his voice speaks her language with a heavy accent, but somehow it makes her hair prickle.
He has paid the flower-seller far too much for that simple handful of pimchies, she thinks rather incoherently, as he holds them out towards her; perhaps he wished to pay far too much, a voice inside her reasons, or simply had no inclination for loud-voiced barter.
She hesitates for a moment, eyes searching his face. There are three of them in the market today – there were two last year – there may be six next month. Who knows what their intentions may be? That the North has always been the enemy does not mean that the North must always be the only enemy. That many of the Outlanders she has seen appear to have little sense and less intelligence does not mean that all Outlanders are thus afflicted. That this Outlander is beautiful does not mean that he is kind, or good, or honest.
It is the shyness in his eyes, the shyness behind the forced courage, that decides her. She has always been impulsive, the fire of her hair echoed in the spirit of her soul, as her uncle says. Now something sends her forward, that last step into the orbit of this boy in man’s clothing, her hand reaching out to close gently around the pimchies.
“You are beautiful,” she tells him, her own voice sounding odd in her ears.
There is uncertainty in his eyes at the unfamiliar syllables of the Hillfolk, but he blinks it back, and at last the serious lines of his face relax, falling into a small, shy smile.
She smiles back at him, letting the small smile she gave him earlier widen, from the brightness of Gonturan’s edge into the full radiance of her blade.
“Alexander,” he says.
The sounds are strange on her tongue as she rolls them over. “Sandr,” she says, and laughs at herself. “Alasandr,” she says again.
There is a real smile on his face now, and something inside her thrills to it. She is no blushing girlchild, to fall in love with the first person to smile at her. She is a woman of grown years, and she has loved before; she knows the joys and the sorrows of it. This is not love. This is a passing fancy of spring, of blue eyes and golden hair and the shyness of a smile.
“Aerin,” she says in her turn.
(He will not know the history of that name. He would not believe it, even if she told him, even if she was to find the words in his strange gargling tongue. He would not know what it meant, to have Aerin’s blood singing in her veins, to have the traces of Aerin’s kelar murmuring somewhere behind her eyes.
He would not understand how it felt, to lift Gonturan against Northerners, to kill and to maim to protect Damar. He would not understand the despair of the victors, when victory means only survival for another generation. He would not recognise in her the same woman who had knelt on a battlefield, holding her dead lover in her arms, her hands streaked with blood.
He would not understand what it meant, to drink of the Meeldtar and see only a girl lying dead in the Hills, with Gonturan dull and lifeless at her side. The girl is not her; she is small and the girl is tall, and the girl does not have her hair. But that one picture alone does the Meeldtar give her, a dead girl in her Hills.)
“Erin,” he says, and her thoughts break, as his lips shape her name.
She raises the pimchies to her nostrils. They smell sweet, if a bit cloying, and she closes her eyes, banishing all thoughts of blood and war and loss. Today is to welcome the coming of another spring, and she will not give way to fear or despair.
“Erin,” her Outlander says again, and his voice lingers on the sounds.
She opens her eyes and looks up over the pimchies, looks up into his shy blue eyes. She thinks of Outlanders, and Hillfolk, and the blue sword she has carried; she thinks of dead lovers and dead mothers and dead girls in Meeldtar visions; she thinks of her uncle, and the forgotten Outlanders hovering awkwardly behind their fellow, and the flower-seller with her mouth agape.
Her thoughts fly as quickly as a good horse, all in a moment.
“Sandr,” she says. Her mouth is dry, and she licks her lips. “Walk with me?”
He will not have understood her words, but he looks at her outstretched hand, gesturing to the border of the marketplace, and he smiles.
(They will call her Erin in his homeland, and purse their lips disapprovingly at her hair, her accent, and her love for fast horses. They will talk about her behind their hands, and in the corners of ballrooms, and in their own marketplaces. Sandr will be hurt, but she will laugh, blinking back the anger which will threaten to rear its head, and let him see that they cannot harm her. She will teach their children to ride, and not know whether she feels joy or sadness when kelar fails to spark behind their eyes; she will never again drink the Meeldtar and see the dead girl in the Hills; she will wake clutching the sheets where Gonturan should be.)
It is springtime in Ihistan, and this is the passing fancy of spring.